Got My Goat / Sacrificial Smoke and Mirrors

The old Jewish chestnut goes like this: a man complains to the rabbi that his living conditions are dismal. The whole family is crammed into a single room and barely has room to move.

"Bring the goat into the house," says the sage, to the man's consternation. A week later the man returns, complaining even more bitterly, this time about the reek and filth. "Remove the goat," commands the learned scholar and lo, a week later the man returns beaming: since the goat's banishment, everything's fine.

Here in Israel, the goat went in and the goat got kicked out, but not by any rabbi. The power behind the goat's living quarters were business leaders. They got us used to their making tens of millions of shekels a year and now they're taking out the goat by lowering their pay to NIS 5 million a year. I almost wrote, just NIS 5 million a year.

It's the latest fad. All the executives are announcing a courtesy pay cut of 10% to 15%. Less than that wouldn't be polite and wouldn't satisfy the public. More would be inconvenient.

But another fad among the top talent is annual pay of NIS 3 million to NIS 5 million a year. Efi Rosenhaus of Super-Sol got NIS 4.9 million in 2008, half in salary and half as bonus. Amos Shapira of Cellcom got NIS 2 million pay and NIS 3 million in bonuses. Both companies increased their profits in 2008, but it's doubtful they'll repeat the trick this year.

Union Bank was a little more modest: Its CEO and chairman settled for NIS 3 million to NIS 3.5 million a year, certainly a humble sum for bank chieftains. But Union's profit shrank 60% last year, its return on equity is a lowly 3% and it can't expect this year to be better.

This is the goat, version 2009. Pay is moderately cut to "just" NIS 3 million to NIS 5 million. That's how much CEOs here think they're worth, and they also think it's modest enough to preclude a lynching. That's all the sacrifice they think they should make. Next to NIS 10 million, NIS 25 million, 5 million looks like peanuts, surely.

In that, they're like their American peers, fixing up offices for a million dollars while begging for taxpayer money. Our Israeli managers haven't asked for handouts yet (though some are in the works), nor do they foresee bankruptcy. But like their colleagues abroad, they're living in another world. What they see as supreme sacrifice is simply, in the eyes of the public, removing the goat from the living room.

NIS 3 million or NIS 5 million a year is mathematically less than NIS 10 million or NIS 25 million, but that doesn't make it modest or reasonable. Not when you look at the performance of the companies, and at the risk of a serious downturn in business this year. It is not in the realm of Israeli pay norms.

Top management continues to think its time is precious and its talent should be paid for in gold. But the American example shows that the difference between gold and fold can be pretty small goat. All those geniuses we thought we couldn't do without - we could have. Pay of millions of shekels a year is immoral, and brings us closer to social unrest. That is a risk Israeli society should not have to face.